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Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Falstaff - opera in three acts (1893)
Falstaff - Renato Bruson (baritone); Alice Ford - Katia Ricciarelli (soprano); Ford - Leo Nucci (baritone); Meg Page - Brenda Boozer (mezzo); Mistress Quickly - Lucia Valentina-Terrani (alto); Nannetta - Barbara Hendricks (soprano); Fenton - Dalmacio Gonzales (tenor); Pistol - William Waldermann (bass); Bardolph - Francis Egerton (tenor); Dr. Caius - John Dobson (tenor)
Orchestra and Chorus of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London/Carlo Maria Giulini
rec. live, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London, 1982
Producer: Ronald Eyre. Set design: Hayden Griffin. Costume design: Michael Stennett
Directed for TV and Video by Brian Large
Sound format. LPCM stereo. Picture format 4:3. Colour
WARNER MUSIC VISION 50-51442-0494-2-8 [137:00]



Falstaff was the culmination of Verdi’s long career as an opera composer. He had talked of retirement after the premiere of Un Ballo in Maschera in 1858 and really did believe he had laid down his compositional pen after Aida in 1871. But nearly a decade later, persuaded by his publisher, he embarked on a rewriting of Simon Boccanegra which had been premiered in 1857. This involved his working with Arrigo Boito, an accomplished librettist and also a composer; it was an association Verdi came to relish. The revised Boccanegra was a success at La Scala in 1881 and showed that even at the age of 68 Verdi’s inner genius was alive and well. Ricordi and Boito subtly pointed Verdi towards Shakespeare’s Otello. Verdi loved and revered Shakespeare above any other poet. Slowly, via constant personal contact and communication Otello was written. It was premiered at La Scala, six years after the revised Boccanegra. Verdi was then 74 years of age and really did think he had finished operatic composition. But he had not allowed for Boito. Three years after the premiere of Otello Verdi wrote to a friend What can I tell you? I’ve wanted to write a comic opera for forty years, and I’ve known ‘The Merry Wives of Windsor’ for fifty… however, the usual buts and I don’t know if I will ever finish it…I am enjoying myself. Boito’s vital contribution in enabling Verdi to match Shakespeare was in his capacity for drawing out a taut libretto from the plays concerned. He had reduced Otello by six-sevenths and in Falstaff reduces the 23 characters in The Merry Wives of Windsor to just ten in the opera. Verdi wrote Falstaff for his own enjoyment. Inevitably during its composition his mind must have wandered back to the tragic domestic circumstances of the death of his wife and children that surrounded the failure of his only other comic opera, Il Giorno di Regno, at La Scala in 1840. With Falstaff the outcome was utterly different. Verdi’s 28th and final opera, ‘my little enjoyment’ as he called it, was all he could have hoped for. It was a triumph at its premiere at La Scala on 9 February 1893. The greatest Italian composer ever was 80 years of age. It was a magnificent operatic culmination to a great career as an opera composer.

Verdi’s orchestration in Falstaff, with its final fugue, represents a challenge to even the best of the conductors with a natural feel for the Verdian melodic line and idiom. None has been considered to have had this feel more than Arturo Toscanini. His presence in the orchestra of La Scala at the premiere of Otello, gave him many privileged insights, albeit his tendency in his later years to over-drive the tempi detracted from them. But as with the famous 1956 audio recording of Falstaff conducted by Karajan the man on the rostrum can make or break a performance. That Karajan performance scintillated and was recorded at a time when the conductor on this performance, Carlo Maria Giulini, was dominating the opera scene at La Scala. Much of his work in that theatre was in association with the Luchino Visconti in charge of the production side as was the case in the memorable performances of Don Carlo at Covent Garden in 1958.  Recollecting those cooperative occasions Giulini recounted how conductor and producer would attend all the rehearsals of the other. In that way a dramatically cohesive whole ended up on stage; many memorable performances of that level of cooperation are still remembered and recounted by those privileged to have been present. By the end of the nineteen-sixties opera production and producers had changed as had singers’ attitudes and Giulini, a man of deep feelings and belief, found himself out of sympathy with the developments. In consequence he withdrew his significant insights into the conducting of opera, and particularly Verdi, from staged performances and also the recording studio. With promises of full commitment of all concerned his record company tempted him back into the recording studio for Verdi’s Rigoletto with Domingo, Cappuccilli and Cotrubas (DG Originals 457 753-2). With that hurdle surmounted negotiations for him to conduct a staged production of Falstaff shared between Los Angeles, Covent Garden and Florence in 1982-83 were successful. A live audio recording was made in Los Angeles and issued by DG with the staged performance at Covent Garden being recorded for TV transmission by Brian Large. How far Giulini was able to stipulate a traditional production has been debated. What is certain is that Hayden Griffin’s sets, Michael Stennett’s costumes and Ronald Eyre’s production would have been recognised by Verdi as well as pleasing Giulini. Only the first scene at the Garter Inn was rather cramped for the action that ensues.

Giulini’s conducting of Falstaff is affectionate without being cloying. He is fleet as the wives do their plotting (CH 4) and the lovers serenade each other (CH 6) and appropriately serious and violent as Ford, in his jealousy, searches his house for the would-be seducer (CHs 12-13). Overall Giulini treats Falstaff with an element of seriousness that I consider to be in the plot and the music. Falstaff is not a buffa opera and the humiliations of Falstaff have a bitter flavour, which the conductor catches. In the name part Renato Bruson gives a commanding performance vocally and histrionically. His burnished baritone is full of colour, his legato and enunciation of the text full of nuance. Add the twinkling eyes of a benevolent professor and this assumption is not of an egotistical seducer. He is portly without an over-excessive belly and when he dresses up to visit the ladies and sings a mezza voce ‘when I was a page’ it is easy to imagine him fancying his chances (CH 9). Bruson’s is a consummate portrayal fully realised. As Falstaff goes off to put on his finery Ford, fearing he is being cuckolded has his monologue. Nucci is more convincing here than in many of his Verdi portrayals although I find other audio and video recorded interpretations far superior. Katia Ricciarelli as Alice looks lovely and fines down her big voice to give a portrayal  that is vocally as well as visually convincing (CH 4). Brenda Boozer as Meg is required to make less of a contribution than her colleagues and whilst looking significantly younger does her part justice. Lucia Valentina-Terrani is a traditional Quickly, her bustle making her look oversized. She is not as convincing an actress as her colleagues. Vocally she has all the notes and her facial expressions add to the sonority of those evocative reverenzas with which she approaches Falstaff (CH 7). Barbara Hendricks as Nannetta cannot quite match the sincerity of her acting with the ideal lightness of floated phrase although in the final scene under the over-large Hermes oak she is vocally most appealing (CH 20). Dalmacio Gonzales both looks the part of her ardent lover and sings with honeyed tone (CH 18). The character parts of Bardolph and Dr Caius are in the capable hand of Covent Garden stalwarts Francis Egerton and John Dobson.

Many people watching this recording will wonder why operas such as Falstaff are not seen nowadays in such traditional productions any more. Well, Giulini may have had the answer in that the producer now reigns not the music let alone the conductor. Graham Vick’s over-coloured and overactive Covent Garden production with Bryn Terfel (BBC Pioneer 1025) is typical of the more modern approach, as is that by Luca Ronconi conducted by Mehta (Review). The 2001 performance in 16:9 format from the Teatro Verdi in Busseto conducted by Muti, given to mark the centenary of Verdi’s death is a serious rival to this traditional staging. It replicates the staging of that performed in the same theatre in 1913 conducted by Toscanini. The vocal size of Ambrogio Maestri’s Falstaff matches his physical dimensions, not that the later inhibits his acting or movements or the nuance and variety of colour of his singing. The wives are well matched and with Roberto Frontali is a strong Ford. And Inva Mula and Juan Diego Florez are vocally mellifluous lovers. The impact of the production can only be faulted in the restricted stage size of the small Busseto theatre (TDK DV-OPFAL).

Robert J Farr





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